Funding taken away from PhD student after cancer diagnosis

Claudia Pama launches campaign calling on research bodies to introduce proper sick pay provision

February 14, 2018
Claudia Pama
Claudia Pama

A PhD student whose research funding was withdrawn after she was diagnosed with cancer has launched a campaign to guarantee postgraduates the right to sick leave.

Claudia Pama, a neuroscience researcher at St John’s College, Cambridge, was diagnosed with the illness during the second half of her first year of doctoral study in 2015.

As a result, Ms Pama said, she had “no choice” but to postpone her research for 10 weeks while she received the necessary treatment. Despite initially having secured support from two funding bodies – whom Ms Pama has chosen not to name – she said that she was surprised to learn that one had no sick pay policy, and that both sources planned to suspend her funding for the duration of her treatment.

“It was an impossible situation at first,” she said. “Without this funding – my main source of income – I would certainly have had to drop out of the project altogether,” she told Times Higher Education.

“We reached an agreement that I would continue to receive it for the moment, but that I wouldn’t receive the last 10 weeks of [PhD] funding. At that point I was very confused but, since I was in the middle of getting treatment, I wasn’t in a position to do much about it. It was an incredibly stressful time.”

While some funding bodies in the UK do allow for paid sick leave in specific situations, for instance with training grants, there is currently no standard policy in place. With most PhD students receiving a stipend in place of a salary, there is often no obligation on funders to provide extra support in such instances.

Ms Pama later learned that a friend had been diagnosed with cancer while doing his PhD at the University of Oxford, and another student at UCL had been left in a similar situation.

The trio set up an online petition and published a letter in Nature urging funding bodies to adopt a standard policy for providing students with sick pay, similar to the statutory system available to full-time employees.

More than 400 academics have now signed the group’s petition, and Cancer Research UK has pledged its support by agreeing to adopt its own formal policy of four months of fully paid sick leave and a further four-month period of half-pay if needed.

“Cancer Research has done a good job of setting a great example to other funding bodies,” said Ms Pama, who is in recovery and due to finish her PhD in December this year. “I am very lucky to be in an environment like Cambridge, which has been very supportive of my situation – but I am still looking for financial cover for the final part of my PhD.

“Funding bodies really need to reassess their approach to PhD students because in the end it is also their investment wasted when people have to drop out. I hope this campaign can make a difference.”

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